Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Über-simple articles

Having spent six of the last eight years working in countries where the mother tongue is Slavic, articles are a real problem for most of my students. This is an old photo from Sevastopol, which I’ve just rediscovered, of a diagram which I use again and again to help them understand the rules, although the percentage I attach to it changes from use to use!

Articles flowchart

I encourage students to use the chart whenever they’re not sure which article to choose or why an article has (not) been used. They ask a series of questions:

  • Is the noun countable or uncountable?
  • Countable only: Is it singular or plural?
  • Is it general or specific?

Most of the time, this is enough for them to choose the correct article, or to understand why articles have or have not been used in a reading passage they are analysing. I count ‘a/an’ for first mentions as general because you don’t know which one people are referring to yet. I also point out to them that if in doubt, ‘the’ is correct in 50% of situations!

Of course, if this isn’t enough and you want to cover the exceptions too, you could try my über-complicated articles chart in which I attempted to cover everything! It’s probably time to simplify that a bit 🙂


Comments on: "Über-simple articles" (5)

  1. Hi Sandy,

    That’s very interesting! I came up with something in the middle – not so complex and complete as your nor as simple as what you show on your white board. I simplified things by putting aside geographical and some other proper nouns that happen to have articles (I consider them as not being rule governed. For students, it just is “Piccadilly” but “The Strand” – the historical reasons only confuse them). I also excluded all figurative uses. The result is here: It’s accompanied by interactive exercises for students.

    I’ve been working on it since at least 193 and I’m still not satisfied with what I’ve managed to do.

    I think, though, that if students master what you’ve put on the board, they’ll avoid more than 90% of mistakes.

    Do you know the exercise Martin Holmes made years ago: “Using the right article”:

    I was mainly teaching French students and there are articles in French but they’re not used in quite the same way as in English which results in French speakers overusing them as well as choosing the wrong one.

    Getting students to discuss their choices as you do I found very helpful too.



  2. Thank you! very helpful!


  3. […] Some of them were very complicated because I tried to include way too much information in them. Then I went to the other extreme. Now I think I’ve found a happy […]


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